What Causes Athlete Burnout? A New Study Suggests Perfectionism Plays A Role

A new study looking at what causes athletes to fall out of love with their sport has suggested that overly perfectionistic tendencies and fixation on mistakes play a significant role.

The research was published in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology and looked at more than 250 athletes competing in a variety of individual and team sports including soccer, athletics, golf and weightlifting. On average, the athletes were 21 years old and had been competing for over 8 years at their chosen sport at levels ranging from college to international.

The athletes were measured for levels of stress, perfectionism and burnout, defined as having a reduced sense of accomplishment, prolonged exhaustion and lack of enthusiasm for their sport.

“There are many studies that have shown if an individual pursues perfection, whether that be in work, sport, or school, it can lead to burnout,” said Luke Olsson, first author of the study and a lecturer in sport psychology from the University of Essex’s School of Sport, Rehabilitation and Exercise Sciences in the U.K.

The study found that athletes who were hyper self-critical and those who reacted very negatively to even minor perceived failures were more likely to experience burnout with their sport.

“Our study was able to determine one potential explanation as to why this is the case in sport, which suggests that the stresses of pursuing perfection can lead those to mentally disengage with their sporting activities,” said Olsson.

The researchers hope that the work might lead to interventions to prevent athletes from developing burnout. These could include cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness and developing a kinder mindset.

“Athletes may be better served by being less self-critical which should allow them to celebrate successes in performance and embrace failures as an opportunity to reflect and improve rather than beat themselves up,” said Olsson.


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